Study group: “Poverty Is Not Neglect”

Above: Participants with lived experience of poverty during a preparation day before collaborating with social workers and academics.

To gather evidence for a United Nations review of the UK’s human rights compliance, ATD Fourth World is running a two-year series of study groups on poverty, social work and the right to family life. To read about the 1st session, please click here.

The  second session, on 14-15 July 2022, focused on the theme of “poverty is not neglect”. The 23 participants included 9 lived-experience activists; 6 academics in the fields of social work, social policy or human rights; and 5 practitioners of social work or family support work. The preparation group chose this theme for two reasons:

  • Indicators of poverty overlap with the indicators for neglect that social workers consider when assessing the possibility that a child may be at risk of serious harm in the future;
  • Also, parental neglect of children is being confused with societal neglect of families with children. When poverty is at play, when is it appropriate to hold parents responsible for child neglect, and when is it more appropriate to offer support and access to services for the whole family in an endeavour to correct societal neglect? What does appropriate support look like to families?

In this article, Simon Haworth, a social work academic at the University of Birmingham, explains why efforts to define and assess emotional neglect are ‘murky’.

In early July, parent activist Charlotte Brown went to meet another parent who was unable to attend the study group in order to interview her about the theme. These are the excerpts from the interview that Charlotte later presented to others:

Three Referrals, a peer interview of a mother of two boys

When my oldest was at nursery, the nursery made a referral. He's a very active lad. And he was coming in with bruises on his legs, his arms so they made a referral—but they didn't speak to me about it. They've just gone straight to social [services] about a mark on his back. It was a friction burn, because at the time he liked to come downstairs on his bum. Obviously with carpeting, sometimes he'd come down without a shirt on and the friction was putting a mark on his skin. So without asking me “how this has happened?”, the nursery made the referral. I said “You've never seen such an active 3 year old”. His one-to-one nursery worker agreed that he's very active, going 10 miles an hour without thinking of consequences. She said she's seen him running into stuff. But the first social worker said that she didn't see any problems.

Then he came into nursery one day with a massive goose-egg here. [pointing to forehead] Again, they called the social. But I had a witness that said that he was looking at a stone in his hand, and walking along and he walked into a lamppost head on. I tried to explain to the nursery that I haven't touched him, he just walked straight into that lamppost. But they were going: “Oh no, social services have to get involved”. But when the social worker met my son in the nursery setting and also saw him outside that setting, she was happy that he's an active lad.

The third [referral] happened when I was pregnant with my youngest. There was some concern regarding, if the baby was in the Moses basket and my oldest was running around, there was a chance that he could hurt his baby brother. The social worker came to the house. He had a look around. And he said that he didn't see any problem and that he did not want to see our names come across social services again, because we're a young family and just doing what we can with the best of what we have. He signed the documents and actually put a note against our names to say: “There's nothing wrong with this family, please leave them alone”. And that was it, we've had no social work since then.

‘Everyone should be treated the same’

At that time, my partner wasn't working so our son was there on funding. The nursery was made aware that his place was being funded. There were other kids whose parents worked and paid. But I think the ones that were there on the funding were treated differently than the ones whose parents paid for them. You can tell there's a difference in the way they were treated. The ones that were paying to be there were treated very well. They had whatever they wanted when they wanted. Whereas the funded ones were likely put to one side and made to wait till after the ones that have paid. If they had juice, the ones paying to go there were given the juice first and whatever was left was for the funded kids. My son thought that was the way it was supposed to be. That's the mentality. But everyone should be treated the same. So if one person gets juice, the other kids should get juice. You can't just discriminate because one pays and one doesn't.

And it's a problem that the social is being referred to by the nursery without talking to the parents. If they'd spoken to me, I'd have said, “Look, this is how he gets these bruises, I've even videoed them at home. If you don't believe me, ask my mother and she'll tell you: he's just an active lad”. He still comes home with bumps on his arm, and marks, but the school he's at now is quite confident that there's nothing wrong with him at all. At the nursery, instead they were going behind my back and making these reports. My partner was getting furious at this point. If you have a problem, come to us because we don't like it when you go behind our backs. It makes us feel small.

I sent my younger son to a different nursery because I didn't want to put him through what his brother had been through. He got sick and tired of seeing social workers. It showed in his body language. He would hide his head in my arm, or he'd hide behind my leg. And I'd say “we've got to tell them how it happened”. He'd say, “But I don't want to, I'm tired of this. What don't you understand? I told them already. Why do I have to keep telling the same story?” 
During the study group, activist Amanda Button used play-doh to represent her view of the importance of families.

On 14 July, Charlotte and six other parent activists with lived experience of poverty met to reflect on the “Three Referrals” interview and to prepare for the study group session. Together, they prepared this text, which was presented to the study group by Tammy Mayes:

Why do parents say that professionals think poverty is neglect?

Because when our children have a funded place at a nursery, we see them treated worse than the others are, and the school goes behind our backs to make referrals without even asking us what happened, which makes us feel small.

Because when we can’t afford to get a private childminder and are afraid that the one given by the State is abusing our children, we are called “hyper-vigilant” and told that we’re the ones who had a bad childhood.

Because we know that parents who live in multi-million-pound houses get treated properly when they go to the police with a concern about their children’s childminder.

Because when the nursery forgets to log it when our 3-year-old fractures his arm, in hospital they accuse us and make us feel undermined, telling us we’re not a good enough parent.

Because when your home is called “inadequate for your children”, they put the reports together as though they’re creating a story to make the person or the family look as though they’re the worst person ever on the planet.

Because we see schools neglecting the problems of our children’s special needs.

Because when you keep your child home from school because you’re clinically vulnerable to Covid, they refuse to let your child homeschool and say they’re going to investigate.

Because what we do for our children is ignored. You don’t see that we are wearing shoes with holes in them because we can’t afford to buy new shoes for ourselves! You don’t see that we are going without food so our children have enough! You don’t see what we do to better ourselves. You don’t see the tears at night when your child comes home and says, ”My friend got the latest phone and they want me to get it too. They won’t be my friend if I don’t have designer stuff or the latest phone.”

We say that professionals think poverty is neglect because when you don’t have a lot of money and also when you speak up for yourself, the report says that you “don’t have the mental capacity to parent” due to things done to you when you were 7 years old that follow you for your whole life.

Because when you had a bad childhood, in every establishment or authority that you’ve been in, you feel as though you’re being watched constantly. Anything you do, someone’s going to pick up on it and make it mushroom out and snowball.

Because when your child goes into foster care, once they get hold of your childhood records from 30 years ago, they literally say: “there is just no hope for you” even though the reports of the social workers who supervise your contact visits state that your child’s needs are always met and prioritised.

Because there’s no willingness to see that people grow and change or that you aren’t destined to be somehow coloured differently because of the fact that you grew up in poverty.

Because you have no control over their whole view of who you could possibly be as a person, which takes away your agency.

Tammy Mayes, second from right, presents to the group why parents say “poverty is not neglect”.

As the study group unfolded, the following points were raised:

  1. The definition of neglect is sometimes influenced by class-bias

  2. Systems-level discrimination and maltreatment lead to families in poverty being neglected by society

  3. The social constructs of poverty are dehumanising, which takes a psychological toll on parents who internalise stigma

  4. Poverty is individualised which means parents get blamed

Participants also made some recommendations.

Louisa Cowell, Bea Munro, Zahraa Katlan, Faye Hamilton and Lareine during the study group

Excerpts from the discussions

  1. The definition of neglect is sometimes influenced by class-bias and cultural biases

‘Sometimes normal parental action is confused with the pathological. Let’s say lots of time looking at TV. One social worker said, “They should make toys at home instead”. But I would never do anything at home like construct a game for my own kids! There’s an expectation to go beyond barriers in ways that others wouldn’t. Another example was a headteacher who said, “This mother isn’t doing homework with her child and isn’t taking care of him”. But the mother doesn’t have a computer. When we told the headteacher, he said the mother should come to the school library to help her child on the computer. But by the time this mother finishes work and takes two buses, the library would be closed.’ – academic

Social workers at times hone in on poverty and individualise it and start looking at parenting capacity in terms of the social class of the individual. They don’t look at the fact that there isn’t enough money coming into that family, and they still do the best they can.’ – practitioner

The categories of neglect are not based on proper empirical evidence of what harms children. They’ve been socially constructed and are open to massive interpretation. One family could have a completely different experience with two social workers, even in the same borough, depending on how the person in that room decides to interpret neglect. The concept of “neglect” has grown into a big evil cloud. I don’t use that language about my own son. I might’ve been working a lot of late, and ask him if he’s missed something he was in need of, but I wouldn’t use the word “neglect”. We’ve got to have more inclusive language.’ – academic

‘Close-minded and unfair’

‘The categories are also based on Western tradition. They don’t understand the culture of Gypsies and Travellers. I’m a Gypsy and the state has interfered in our family lives. Because we want to live culturally appropriate lives, the only places that the state allows us to live are so disgusting, next to sewage, treatment plants, and awful road systems. There are stereotypes and assumptions made about parenting which are based on state-sanctioned poverty. It’s state-sanctioned because we can’t do the jobs that we used to traditionally, as there are more and more rules around what you can do. And local authorities won’t do anything to improve the sites we live on. There are rats and vermin. That’s poverty, not bad parenting. If you have a social worker that doesn’t understand you and your culture, these assumptions are made, and it’s a close-minded and unfair system.’ – practitioner

The statistics are clear that Black families are over-represented in the child protection system. Gypsy Roma Traveller communities are 13/14 times more likely to have your child removed. The research is clear that it’s institutional racism. There is a completely different reaction to behaviours. You know if I get assertive, people say “he’s an assertive white man, isn’t he?” And that’s okay. If a Black mother does the same thing, that’s called aggressive. We can’t detach these experiences from sexism, racism, homophobia—and also poverty. It’s another form of discrimination, isn’t it?’ -academic

Old social work was about making a connection with that family because you’ve found out that they’re not getting the services they require or the rights they have. But modern social work is a referral to get the social worker to go do an assessment. The story gets embellished to make the case for neglect. The case, however, is empty; the family is just poor.’ – parent

‘Looking under every single thing’

‘When one of my daughters was in secondary school, kids had to be with that group. You got to have the Nike trainers. Because I couldn’t afford it, she got told every single day , “If you’re going to be with us, you have to have the trainers, tell your mum to buy them”. The school said, “It’s just some kids mocking”. But it was so serious that one day my daughter went in the bathroom and took pills. I just caught her in time. My daughter was going to kill herself because of one stupid girl. What do you do in that situation? Because you’ve just told the school that your daughter tried to kill herself. And then you’re saying, “Oh, we haven’t got enough money to pay for trainers”. They could have used that as neglect. You never know where that would have ended up.’ – parent

‘I feel lucky that I was never under observation for my parental capabilities. It never crossed my mind that someone would come in and examine me; while for some people, it’s exactly the other reality: they expect to be examined, and to have to prove themselves. I met a family where the mother was under strict observation as to how she uses her income and what she chooses to buy. But families have different cultural preferences. Some may choose to spend more money in inviting relatives over, or having big family events, because this is their custom, and also how they are measured by those around them. But this choice was criticised by the social worker who asked, “Why don’t you buy books for the kids?” The same mother was not working. There was a lot of pressure trying to get her into work. But when she started to work, she had no time for the children. So she would leave the younger child with the older child. Someone reported them and the social worker started to intervene. The mother was caught in the middle: either she works long hours and can’t care for the children, or she doesn’t work.’ – academic

‘But older children are allowed to look after their siblings. The law clearly states that, if you deem that your child is mentally capable enough to look after younger siblings, then you are OK to do that. But of course, if you’ve got social services involved, that’s deemed to be the worst thing you can do. It’s that line again, that power dynamic. You’re following the law, but getting told off for doing exactly what the law states you can do. It’s that perception of you, and having someone come into your family, investigating you and looking under every single thing.’ – parent

‘Just because you live in poverty’

‘I have witnessed prevailing attitudes where poverty is seen as a result of addiction, family breakdown, economic dependence, and lack of education. A minority of social workers do hold those troubling beliefs: that because of these factors, people live in poverty. Frankly, that’s just not true. And social workers shouldn’t be in the job if they have those judgements. Because we are here to support our families and we should be walking alongside them. So you just lightly challenge those attitudes — but it’s difficult to challenge.’ – practitioner

‘We went away on holiday, which is very rare. We had prepared for the holiday the year before by paying in instalments. We have no money whatsoever. But it was OK because we were in a caravan just enjoying the beach and the free entertainment. When we came back after the holiday, our washing machine broke. And when you’ve got a stoma bag and you use catheters, you need a washing machine. So we used the money we had for food to buy a washing machine, and then we asked the social worker for a food voucher so we could go to a food bank. In the report, they put that we shouldn’t have gone on holiday because we couldn’t afford it. That we couldn’t afford to feed the children and that by using a food bank we were neglecting our children. But they didn’t put the whole story in their report. They just put the fact that we had used a food bank as neglect. And that makes me angry. You can’t go on holiday or have the things that normal people have, just because you live in poverty. It shouldn’t be that way.’ – parent

They judge you, rather than supporting you. They wait for you to slip up so they can create a case. I had problems with my daughter’s school. I had to shield as Covid could possibly be fatal for me, but I kept being bullied by the attendance officers. Every time we had a meeting with the headmistress and vice principal, they would be rolling their eyes every time I spoke. That’s really unprofessional and downright rude. But this is what you get as a parent whose only issue is I don’t have a lot of money. So I sent her to school and then she caught Covid, and gave it to me, and I was hospitalised. I wanted the school to take accountability, but at that point they went to the local authority and made up some stories about me being emotionally abusive to my child. Instead of supporting me or giving me any sort of resources, they referred me to social services. I asked for help but was met with hostility because I’m not opulent. The parent should be offered support, not penalised for living in poverty.’ – parent


The people subjected to child protection conferences are from low-income families and powerless. If these conferences were focused on middle-class and upper middle-class families, the system would already have changed because they would have made their feelings known immediately. We’re allowed to get away with things and do things to people that have got no power and are essentially voiceless.’  – practitioner

Because that happened to me, I was told by a social worker, “Abused parents abuse”. But you can’t make assumptions that people aren’t good parents because they’re poor. You can’t make assumptions that as a black single mother, I’m going to beat my children. Just because I was raised that way doesn’t mean I am then going to raise my child that way. As a matter of fact I did a 180 [degree] U-turn. I don’t want my childhood to affect my child. I do everything differently to what my mum did to me. I was brutalised; yet I never hit my child.’ – parent

  1. Systems-level discrimination and maltreatment lead to families in poverty being neglected by society

‘There was a boy who didn’t do any of his homework, so I asked him why. And he was like, “it’s really hard off the phone screen”. I thought, actually yeah, I couldn’t do my homework off a phone screen either.’ – practitioner

‘One time, we asked for respite because I had just come out of a coma. This was the first time I had asked for respite and I would never do it again. My children were little and my two girls were in and out of hospital, I was in and out of hospital, and my two boys had challenging behaviour. (Later, they were diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADD.) So we asked for respite. But this started a massive big case; we already had social services involved, and now they wanted to move it to child protection. They actually put in their report that because we wanted respite, we didn’t want our children. And it wasn’t that at all. We wanted two days for them to look after our children so that I could recover and so that my husband could be with our daughter at the hospital, which was an hour and a half away. But it was deemed that “you don’t want your children, because you’re asking for respite”. How is that right?’ – parent

‘How do families find out how they can be supported and what resources they have access to, if all services are being shut down? You don’t know where to go, queues for the Citizens Advice Bureau are so long that you can’t get an appointment, and they’ve ended legal aid, so you don’t even have the right any more to challenge places like a school.’ – parent

That legal aid point is massive. It’s preventing parents from getting justice. If social work comes in, the ultimate sanction is permanent removal of your child; but then parents aren’t entitled to legal aid, so they can’t turn up to court with legal representation, which is totally insane.’ – academic

‘Part of people’s dignity’

‘It’s computer led. Assessments are about putting information into the machine. In terms of whether you’ve got time to spend time with families, even when you have done that, it doesn’t count unless there’s a computer record. The relationships can’t exist unless you have recorded it and it’s on the system. That’s all that’s looked at. The reality of people’s experiences is not looked at. It is just a massive administrative process.’ – practitioner

‘I had a family on my caseload going through a process of appeal to remain in the UK: they had no benefits. When I asked for them to be given money for food, it was: “Well, they can have a food bank”. But this woman likes cooking from fresh food, it’s really important culturally to be able to do that. But I was told “no”. That wasn’t right. A food bank doesn’t cut it. A food bank gives you some cans of tomatoes, a few beans, nothing to actually sit down and cook as a family. And that’s part of people’s dignity and part of that family’s cultural norms. It’s about giving that child a normal life where they sit down and spend time cooking and doing those things with their parents. When that help couldn’t be provided, it felt unjust.’ – practitioner

‘My daughter needs bereavement counselling for losing three grandparents in three months. And nine other really close friends or family. I want help to support my child. My GP put us forward for CAMHS, but then CAMHS only offered us parenting advice. Why do I need parenting advice? My daughter needs counselling, and they offer you something that is irrelevant.’ – parent

Social workers are set up to fail: ‘When you’ve got a caseload of 24 kids, plus court work, I work until 10 or 11 o’clock most evenings. I have to work on my day off. You want to do the best by your families; but you’re also constrained by the amount of kids on your caseload. And when there’s a crisis with one child, you feel that all your other children are falling by the wayside, and you feel a lot of guilt. You want to see them more; you feel guilty for not seeing them; and you’re constantly in this treacherous circle.’ – practitioner

  1. Dehumanising social constructs of poverty take a psychological toll on parents who internalise shame

‘We lived in poverty even as children, and so that was used against us [when we became parents]. They said: “You’ve lived in poverty, so you don’t want to get out of poverty”.’ – parent

‘It comes down to the education of social workers because of the way the media portrays people living in poverty. With the cost of living rising, Conservative MPs have been saying it’s because people can’t cook. But that’s not related. The programmes you see about poverty and people on benefits are very stigmatising.’ – practitioner

‘On my caseload, there are days where a certain child will go to school without food. I am always frank and honest with families. I say clearly from the get-go, “If you don’t have food and you’re struggling, the first person you need to call is me. I’m not going to let you go without.” But there is societal judgement and that stigma with poverty where some parents don’t feel able to call me because they think I’ll judge them.’ – practitioner

‘Dehumanising and condescending’

They ruin your self-esteem. I was in a room with 15 people. They were all reading from a piece of paper. I said, “I’m here, ask me!” Being taken in front of a judge is demoralising, dehumanising, traumatising, and condescending. I got so angry about what was in my file. I didn’t display that but I said, “Chair, may I speak?” After I spoke, it was no longer a child protection case. It went to “child in need” for a month, and they closed the case. If I hadn’t got angry and spoken, I may have lost my daughter. And wouldn’t that be an injustice?’ – parent

‘No one challenges in relation to the human rights act. Those cases land on my desk where we have gone so far down with all the trauma that’s been caused to those families who have experienced state intervention into our family lives. I’m saying “our” because my mother and her siblings were removed. It’s part of my living and lived experience. The trauma goes through the generations. So you’ve done all this damage. But then we’re not doing the repair. There’s no repair.’ – practitioner

‘Some schools are providing iPads to children in poverty but making them return it to the office every single day. They’re shaming those children. Every other child knows they’re different. “There’s Dave, whose mum can’t afford it”. And at the end of the day, when Dave wants to go out with his mates in town, no, he’s got to go take the iPad back to the office. It comes back to that word shame. It’s saying you’re different.’ – academic

  1. Poverty is individualised which means parents get judged and blamed

‘It’s about choice: when you’re stuck with a food bank that only gives tins and pasta, that choice of the family is taken away. It’s the little things: like I’ll have my iced coffee. Things that make me happy are little perks. People in poverty are not able to make a choice over what they eat. When someone is in poverty, there’s more judgement from wider society of what they’re buying. I’m not judged for the iced coffee, but in poverty, as soon as someone buys something that alleviates that stress that they’re living in, be that some cigarettes or a pair of sunglasses, they’re suddenly judged for it. ‘ – practitioner

I go out of my way to make sure my daughter explores the world. Even though I’m on a low wage, I scrimp and save to give her more than just her basic needs. I want her to have opportunities and be a good role model for her. The social work intervention put doubts in my head, although I know I’m a good mum. It’s very hard to fight against an authority when you don’t know your rights.’ – parent

‘The managing social worker came to visit. I get no hello, no nothing. She was a Black woman who said to me, “You’re Black, but Black people don’t live like this”. At the time I was going through domestic violence, and I had a lot of young kids, so naturally, the house wasn’t spotless. Immediately when she said that she made me feel so small. She didn’t realise how much I was going through as a single mother. They judge you the minute they come, unannounced, before they make any assessment.’ – parent

Participant recommendations

A rights-based approach: ‘We should be ensuring that families are spoken with before any referrals are made, but that’s not routinely done. There’s a need for parent advocates, and on top of that, for legal advocates. We need the system to be more legal before it can be fair and explained. There needs to be independent critical examination of decisions and thresholds. If you had a local authority where there was a human-rights focused legal oversight of decisions made, you’d have less child protection cases because people would be concerned that they were making a mistake and that was being pointed out.’ – practitioner

Social work education: ‘A lot of social workers need to unlearn what they are fed by the media about people in poverty. That should be done through social work education. When you hear only about people living in poverty due to lack of education, you are not looking at the structural factors. There needs to be education around the lack of opportunities for people in poverty.’ – practitioner

There’s a disconnect, we didn’t just used to learn of welfare rights, we did it. You made sure families received the benefits they were entitled to, you made sure to support them in situations where benefits were refused. That shaped the way you thought about and understood the family in this situation. Going back to that approach would make a difference.’ – practitioner

Relationships and constructive communication

‘We used to spend time getting to know families to build relationships. We need to get back to that.’ – academic

When I meet a family, I don’t read the background history much. I have a little scan, and that’s enough reading. Then I go meet them. I do see if there’s a need to go in a pair because of a risk of violence. But I try to not read everything because you want to go in with an open lens; you don’t want to judge that family before you’ve met them.’ – practitioner

‘Social workers also talk about “disguised compliance” so I’ll ask, “Can you tell the family what that means?” I got a different interpretation every single time I asked. Some of them couldn’t even answer it. Those categories of neglect themselves have got to go, because professionals have got to be more precise. Instead of saying, “This parent has neglected the child”, they should have to say, “This parent has done x, y and z”, which then gives the parent a chance to go, “Actually, I didn’t do X, but maybe I did Y. Then you’re having a constructive conversation.’ – academic

Creative interventions: ‘Solidarity and care are important. It’s great to hear social workers who look for charity funding even when the manager says no to a washing machine or therapy for the child. It’s important that you don’t stop when you’re told no, and that you’re being creative in your work.’ – parent

Accountability: ‘Schools and social workers, like any kind of carers, the doctors, everything: they should all answer to someone. There should be some sort of reprimand if they put a false claim in. There should be a fine or something. And then they won’t be so quick to waste government money to bring in social workers. They could be using that money constructively, to support families instead.’ – parent.